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ASSAM TEA IS BLACK TEA. There are two  kinds: Orthodox and CTC, both named after the manufacturing process used to create them. (You can read more  about how tea is made HERE) The leaf used from the bush (Camelia Sinesis) is the same in both cases. Quality leaf makes quality tea.There is no way around that. Quality leaf is determined by the pedigree and health of the tea bush and by careful hand-plucking. But like wine, tea manufacture is a fine art involving years of experience, in-depth know-how and often closely guarded secrets. The crucial step in making black tea is to allow the juices in the rolled fresh leaves to darken from contact with the air. Tea makers call this process “fermentation,” although, technically, it is “oxidation.” A similar process occurs when a cut apple turns brown. The dark substances that form while the tea leaves are exposed to the air is produced by the chemical reactions of the tannins in the tea.  The leaf is spread out and left to wilt, losing some moisture, stiffness and much of its weight. Then it’s rolled, exposing essential oils to the air and starting the oxidation process.  When the leaves have transformed sufficiently, then they are “fired,” dried over heat to stop the oxidation process.

Tea tasting in the factory. Historic photo provided by Roy Church

In practice when a factory is running, samples are taken every hour and tasted which may indicate how the manufacturing process needs to be readjusted. Tea Planters judge determine the quality of tea by its bright color and taste. The liquor when left to cool should turn opaque.

Orthodox Assam Tea. Notice the lighter flecks like tobacco called "tips". This is what gives tea its strength and flavor. Tippier teas have higher caffeine content.

GRADES OF ASSAM TEA Tippy” teas have a higher percentage of buds which show up as golden flecks (like tobacco) in the finished tea. The more “tippy” the tea,  the higher the grade/quality. Very ‘tippy’ teas are expensive. Top grade Orthodox is sorted entirely by hand and woolen blankets are sometimes used to further separate the fine golden tips. Orthodox names often have the words “golden” or “flowery” in the description but some names are confusingly common to both methods (Orthodox & CTC) of manufacture.

The four grades of Orthodox black tea are: 1. Flowery Orange Pekoe (the small leaf next to the bud).  2. Orange Pekoe (the second leaf next to the bud).  3. Pekoe (the third leaf next to the bud). and 4.  Souchong (the fourth leaf next to the bud).

TGFOP (Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe) is the highest grade of Orthodox Assam, hand processed in small quantities at the finest plantations. It contains roughly one-quarter tips. The joke among tea aficionados is that TGFOB stands for “Too good for ordinary people.” TGFOB fetches top prices in the Arab world. It is drunk “pure” without milk. Bottom of the barrel are the Fannings and Dust. This is the tea that go into tea bags. Tea Dust is also what is boiled in milk and spices to create Indian street chai, which is a whole different cuppa altogether.

The word “pekoe,” used in grading black teas, comes from the Chinese word meaning “silver-haired.” This refers to the silvery down found on especially young tea-leaves. “Orange Pekoe” is neither flavored with oranges nor especially orange-colored.

“Orange” probably comes from the Dutch royal family, the House of Orange. (The Dutch played a major role in bringing tea to the West, and the Dutch East India Company was the first large tea trading company in Europe.) So Orange Pekoe tea is a fancy grade of black tea, as indicated by the reference to Dutch nobility and the fact that it contains particularly young tea-leaves


CTC tea: a dark fully oxidized tea that give a strong dark brew and has a rich malty taste.

CTC TEA: At the start of the 20th century when tea drinking caught on in the UK,  British tea companies started experiments in Assam and the CTC method invented and used to the increase volume of tea. CTC is the acronym for Crush, Tear & Curl. It describes the factory process used to make the tea which is similar to that of orthodox tea manufacture but instead of the leaves being rolled as a final stage, they are passed through a series of cylindrical rollers with hundreds of small sharp “teeth” that Crush, Tear, and Curl the leaf into tiny little balls.

CTC tea gives double the cuppage for the same weight as orthodox. For example one Kg. of CTC tea yields around 500 cups compared to 250 cups from Orthodox. The quality of Orthodox however is better than CTC as the coarse leaf is discarded at the time of manufacture by shifting.

Pekoe nowadays simply denotes the size of the tea particle. The smaller the particle size the quicker and stronger the brew. Large whole leaf teas tend to brew slower and lighter, and have more subtle flavours than small leaf teas.

Until the late 1960’s, 90% of Assam tea was sent to U.K. (to pay Sterling shareholders). Now it’s the other way round (90% sold in India). This also means that today’s tea standard is much lower than it was. This matter is further complicated by today’s practice of tea being grown on small private gardens who sell  their green leaf to other gardens which in practice means there is little control over quality.

(This post has been compiled from information collected from Larry Brown, Roy Church, Davey Lamont and Ali Zaman: all veteran Tea Planters. I have also used some excellent tea excerpts from Andy’s website www.askandyaboutclothes.com. Any errors/omissions are my own. Please drop me a line if there is anything amiss or if you would like to be credited differently. Thank you!)

Do you have other questions? Shoot me an email and I will ask the experts.

OTHER RELATED POSTS
Tea talk on Tea Buddy
What is Assam Tea?
Types of Assam tea: ORTHODOX & CTC
How is Assam Tea Made?
Is global warming changing the flavor of Assam Tea?
What is the difference between Black Tea & Green Tea?